Brian Lang is no longer the warden of Ferndale penitentiary, but he still drives up to it regularly.
When he leaves, the back of his pick-up is always weighed down by 500 kg of vegetables. It’s an organic garden plot at Ferndale that he’s visiting, and it’s part of Work2Give, a project that hopes to give aboriginal inmates employable skills while having them contribute in a positive way to their community.
Now, eight years after it began, researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) are planning to study the impact of Work2Give by measuring release dates and repeat offences of inmates.
“UBC’s involvement in the Work2Give Project is central to [the project’s] credibility and long-term sustainability,” said Lang, who has been working since 2005 to get researchers involved.
Brian Lang reflects on the projects’ meaning (0’55”)
The Work2Give project focuses on aboriginal inmates because they are overrepresented in Canadian prisons. According to Statistics Canada, First Nations account for about three per cent of Canada’s population. But In federal prisons, 20 per cent of inmates are aboriginal. In provincial prisons, the figure is 27 per cent.
The Movember Foundation’s Men’s Health & Wellbeing Innovation Challenge is providing $150,000 to fund the two-year research by UBC’s Dr. Helen Brown and Dr. Colleen Varcoe.
They were behind one of the 15 winning projects that shared $2.2-million for what the foundation described as “creative and innovative ideas that [aim] to disrupt long held assumptions about men’s health, focus on positive elements of masculinity, and get men to take action with their health.”
Brown and Varcoe had been working on the project for seven months before the funding was secure, and they’ve already visited the inmates.
“I know many think these are the last people we should spend any time with or waste any research resources on,” sad Brown. “But I’ve met some very articulate, thoughtful people who are on a path now [and] they’re going to be a force when they leave in terms of what they’re going to do and who they want to be. It’s really amazing to see that.”
She calls her research a type of “activism research,” and has received some raised eyebrows from colleagues over it. It hasn’t fazed her though.
“You can teach someone employment skills and do rehabilitation post-release,” said Brown. “But the vision here is deeper than that … when you give to others you develop the kind of self-worth that is at the root of rehabilitation.”
‘Toys for children’
For Lang, it’s an enormous relief to have UBC on board. He had previously tried with Thompson Rivers University and the University of the Fraser Valley, but those attempts eventually fizzled.
Lang’s hope is that the research on the effects of the program on inmates will lead to research on the benefit to communities receiving the goods produced as well.
“Without independent research,” said Lang, “we will never know if the small material investments made in the lives of poor children and families will lead to higher rates of retention in school, fewer health-related illnesses and incidents.”
The Ferndale garden is one of the three sites included in Work2Give. The other two sites are workshops where inmates build furniture, toys, and traditional items, as well as knit clothes.
Finished products are all donated to the poorest aboriginal children in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region, and the children write back to the inmates to thank them.
‘Lack of opportunities’
Earlier in Lang’s career, he helped create a hot-lunch program at the Chilliwack Community Correctional Centre where over 600 school-age kids received a free lunch daily. The program has evolved since then, where inmates at the facility receive cooking training in making the meals for the school-age children. The University of the Fraser Valley studied the kids involved, and the results were that marks, behaviour, and attendance all improved.
Lang was moved by the enormous effect such a small investment could have and hopes this program will also help children from impoverished families stay in school and avoid jail.
“I’ve always thought you can draw a straight line from a guy sitting in a jail cell penitentiary to his or her childhood, where there was a lack of opportunities,” said Lang.
Work programs in Canadian prisons are nothing new. Corcan, the national Correctional Services Canada work program, has 2,000 offenders working on any given day and reports that about 4,000 inmates benefit yearly from its work-training programs.
The Globe and Mail reported in 2013 that documents from the Public Safety Department criticized these programs for rarely providing training in industries that would give the inmates work once they were out. Still though, other reports show that work programs reduce the chance that an inmate will re-offend by up to 33 per cent.